Jerry Rice. John Stallworth. Terrell Owens. Kurt Warner. Michael Strahan. Other than wildly successful careers, what do these players have in common? They all hail from small schools.
As these players have proved, don't write off a player by looking at his alma mater. These 10 players are the next to follow that path.
1. Ben Ijalana: OT Villanova
He will likely have to kick inside to guard but will have a terrific career there. He maxes out his 6'4", 320 pound frame and has the ability to engulf smaller linemen. He possesses tremendous upper body strength and sticks on contact, using leverage and leg drive to do so.
He is as experienced as they get with 52 career starts. Despite playing at a small school, he fared well against the best the FCS had to offer, with strong performances against Appalachian State and Eastern Washington. Ijalana has an outside shot to sneak into the first round.
2. Kenrick Ellis: DT Hampton
A mammoth future nose tackle at 6'5", 340 pounds, Ellis won the majority of one-on-one battles in college. He often had to be double-teamed, or at the least, chipped by an interior lineman. In addition to his strength, he has a sneaky first step, can penetrate in the backfield and has the ability to shed blocks.
His motor is rare for a nose tackle. Against South Carolina State, Ellis had a tackle 15 yards down the left sideline. Even though he had a talent advantage, he was not complacent. Ellis should come off the board in the second or third round.
3. Will Rackley: OT Lehigh
Rackley is another small-school offensive lineman earning some publicity. At 6'4", 310 pounds, he is a strong run blocker. His hand placement is what you're looking for; getting them under the shoulder pads and between the armpits. Rackley smoothly gets to the second level and excels in combination blocking.
He may move inside due to being shorter than the normal tackle, and lacking great lateral movement, but he should succeed at guard. Rackley will likely be selected within the first three rounds.
4. Justin Rogers: CB Richmond
Rogers is just starting to get talked about. Although I only got to watch one of his games, I saw some positives. While he won't thrive in a scheme where his priority is playing the run, he will have success as a ball hawk and coverage corner.
He has fluid hips and turns without much of a hitch. He was asked to play in a variety of different assignments: man, zone, press and off coverage, and had 32 pass breakups along with 13 interceptions in his career. Also showing his athletic ability, Rogers was the team's punt returner while playing sparingly on offense. Rogers' value is on the rise.
5. Julius Thomas: TE Portland St.
Following in the footsteps of players such as Antonio Gates and, more recently, Jimmy Graham, Thomas went from hoops to the gridiron. After playing basketball for three years, Thomas joined the football team as a senior. He was selected to play in the East-West Shrine Game, where he caught a touchdown pass and a two-point conversion.
He's raw and not much of a blocker, but the potential is there, and he can easily be molded.
6. Derrin Nettles: DE Morehouse
Another productive defensive lineman at a college more likely to be the answer to a Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? question than be talked about at the football round table. Nettles had a dominant senior year, racking up 24.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks and seven forced fumbles. He was selected to attend the Division II All-Star Game, although due to some miscommunications, he was not able to attend.
Standing in at 6'4", 305 pounds, he isn't a player who racked up the gaudy numbers by simply being faster than everyone else. He may not get drafted, but will likely earn a look in camp. If he plays the way he has, he'll find a home.
7. Ryan Jones: CB Northwest Missouri St.
Jones had a successful run with the Bearcats, finishing his career with 39 pass breakups and 270 interception yards on 14 picks. Jones was selected to play in the NFLPA game this past week, formerly known as the Texas vs. the Nation Game. He's a player to keep an eye on in the later rounds.
8. Trevis Turner: OT Abilene Christian
Coming from a small school whose alumni consist of recent successful NFL players such as Bernard Scott and Johnny Knox, Turner is massive at 6'7", 342 pounds. Showing his work ethic, he has played in three All-Star games: the D-II All-Star Game, Eastham Energy and the NFLPA Game.
It's worth noting that he won Offensive Lineman of the Game in the D-II All-Star Game. Last year's winner, J'Marcus Webb, became the starting right tackle for the Chicago Bears.
9. Malcolm Jenkins: DE Elizabeth City St.
Go ahead and look it up. That's really a college—a place where Jenkins dominated. In 2010, he was named the Conference Defensive Player of the Year after recording 16 tackles for losses, 11 sacks and 20 hurries. That was actually a down year for Jenkins after a 22.5, 11.5 and 23 junior season. He's a tweener, listed at 6'5", 235 pounds, but the numbers sure are interesting.
10. Phil Milbrath: RB Michigan Tech
Even at a low level, the numbers are staggering. Milbrath rushed for over 1,400 yards and nearly seven yards per carry his senior season. He also chipped in with 27 receptions and six receiving touchdowns. One of his biggest games came in an upset of No. 1 Grand Valley State, rushing for 293 yards and two touchdowns.
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